Trump Administration Quietly Adds Foreign Arms Sale to List of “Essential Work”

Some defense workers say their lives shouldn’t be risked to make weapons.

Taylor Barnes May 19, 2020

Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, congratulated the Korean armed forces for the new arrival of an RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone via Twitter. (Photo: @USAmbROK)

Buried on the 18th page of a recent­ly updat­ed fed­er­al gov­ern­ment memo defin­ing which work­ers are crit­i­cal dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic is a new cat­e­go­ry of essen­tial work­ers: defense indus­try per­son­nel employed in for­eign arms sales. 

The new text indicates that the federal government deliberately expanded the scope of work for essential employees in the mid-April memo to include the "sale of U.S. defense articles and services for export to foreign allies and partners."

The memo, issued April 17, is a revised ver­sion of state­ments issued by the Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty and Infra­struc­ture Secu­ri­ty Agency and the Depart­ment of Defense in mid-March. In those, the defense indus­try work­force was deemed essen­tial” along­side health­care pro­fes­sion­als and food pro­duc­ers, a broad des­ig­na­tion that prompt­ed crit­i­cism from a for­mer top acqui­si­tion offi­cial for the Pen­ta­gon, defense-spend­ing watch­dog groups, and work­ers them­selves. The orig­i­nal March mem­os made no men­tion of the tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in for­eign arms sales that U.S. com­pa­nies make each year.

The new text indi­cates that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment delib­er­ate­ly expand­ed the scope of work for essen­tial employ­ees in the mid-April memo to include the sale of U.S. defense arti­cles and ser­vices for export to for­eign allies and part­ners.” In These Times spoke with numer­ous work­ers who instead say their plants could have shut down pro­duc­tion for clients both domes­tic and for­eign. The updat­ed April 17 memo was issued as the Unit­ed States report­ed more than 30,000 Covid-19 deaths, a num­ber that would come close to tripling in the fol­low­ing weeks. 

The new memo, which says essen­tial work­ers are those need­ed to main­tain the ser­vices and func­tions Amer­i­cans depend on dai­ly,” also reflects what defense work­ers tell In These Times has been a real­i­ty through­out the pan­dem­ic: Work is ongo­ing on mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al shop floors across the coun­try, includ­ing on weapons for for­eign sales.

(A memo in March said essen­tial work­ers are those need­ed to meet nation­al secu­ri­ty com­mit­ments to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and U.S. mil­i­tary.” In April, the gov­ern­ment qui­et­ly updat­ed the memo to include a new line of essen­tial work: for­eign arms sales.)

Arms man­u­fac­tur­ing for export has con­tin­ued at a Lock­heed Mar­tin plant in Fort Worth, which has stayed open 24 hours a day dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and man­u­fac­tures the F‑35 fight­er jet. Asked by In These Times if F‑35 pro­duc­tion for inter­na­tion­al cus­tomers was ongo­ing in Fort Worth dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, a Lock­heed spokesman respond­ed that there are no spe­cif­ic impacts to our oper­a­tions at this time.” The com­pa­ny has a robust slate of domes­tic and for­eign orders to ful­fill for the F‑35 — the most expen­sive weapons pro­gram in U.S. his­to­ry, one the com­pa­ny now adver­tis­es at a price tag of at least $89 mil­lion per jet. This slate includes 98 for the Unit­ed States in the fis­cal year 2020 and scores for inter­na­tion­al buy­ers in Europe and the Asia-Pacif­ic region, accord­ing to a recent report on the F‑35 pro­gram from the Con­gres­sion­al Research Service.

An employ­ee at the Fort Worth plant told In These Times, I don’t think it should be des­ig­nat­ed essen­tial if we’re not doing it for our own coun­try. I under­stand these oth­er coun­tries have put mon­ey into it. I do under­stand that. But these oth­er coun­tries are shut down, too,” the work­er added, refer­ring to the major dis­rup­tions of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties across the globe. The employ­ee said they have seen com­put­er mon­i­tors indi­cat­ing jets were des­tined for Japan and Aus­tralia in recent weeks.

In the first weeks after the coun­try shut down, the employ­ee says they and their fel­low work­ers asked them­selves, Why don’t we move these air­craft out of the way for a minute? And we have enough man­pow­er here we could make masks. We could make ven­ti­la­tors.” But the com­pa­ny’s pri­or­i­ties for its essen­tial work­ers, the employ­ee says, has been: Let’s get these jets and let’s get them run­ning. Let’s pump them out the door.”

Sev­er­al defense indus­try work­ers told In These Times they believe on-site man­u­fac­tur­ing work at weapons plants for both for­eign and domes­tic use could have been sus­pend­ed at least for a mat­ter of weeks dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. They also said they wor­ry about the fea­si­bil­i­ty of keep­ing busy work­places safe and san­i­tary, and that they dis­trust employ­ers’ meth­ods for han­dling virus cas­es that have emerged among workers.

Alarm over the expec­ta­tion to con­tin­ue report­ing to shop floors for hands-on jobs has opened a rift between defense con­trac­tors and their employ­ees, with the lat­ter feel­ing con­strained from speak­ing out pub­licly due to the con­fi­den­tial­i­ty sur­round­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty work. Sev­er­al work­ers, all con­cerned about the risks of plants stay­ing open, spoke with In These Times on the con­di­tion their names not be pub­lished, fear­ing reper­cus­sions or los­ing secu­ri­ty clearances.

Ellen Lord, the Pen­tagon’s top weapons buy­er, said at an April 30 press con­fer­ence that of 10,509 major com­pa­nies tracked by the Defense Con­tract Man­age­ment Agency, just 93 were closed, while 141 had closed and reopened. While many in the defense indus­try can work remote­ly — a Lock­heed spokesper­son told In These Times by e‑mail that about 9,000 of its 18,000 employ­ees in Fort Worth are telecom­mut­ing — the thou­sands that remain on plant floors, work­ers say, are often blue-col­lar employ­ees whose jobs are hands-on. On an April 21 earn­ings call, out­go­ing Lock­heed Mar­tin CEO Mar­il­lyn Hew­son told investors that our man­u­fac­tur­ing facil­i­ties are open and our work­force is engaged.” 

Con­cern for the safe­ty of that work­force prompt­ed Jen­nifer Esco­bar — a vet­er­an and wife of a Lock­heed Mar­tin employ­ee in Fort Worth who him­self is a dis­abled vet­er­an — to pub­licly denounce the com­pa­ny for stay­ing open dur­ing the pandemic.

More than 5,000 peo­ple have signed her peti­tion call­ing for the Fort Worth site to shut down and send employ­ees home with pay. A sim­i­lar peti­tion on behalf of Lock­heed Mar­tin employ­ees in Palm­dale, Calif., gar­nered hun­dreds of sig­na­tures. Esco­bar spear­head­ed the cam­paign, she says, for every­body else who could­n’t stand up because they have a fear of retal­i­a­tion from the employer.”

Esco­bar also start­ed a GoFundMe page for the wid­ow of the Fort Worth site’s first report­ed Covid-19 death. Claude Daniels, a mate­r­i­al han­dler, and his wife, also a Lock­heed employ­ee, had togeth­er spent about sev­en decades work­ing for the com­pa­ny, accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists and Aero­space Work­ers union. 

The local machin­ists union report­ed in late April that the Fort Worth site had 12 con­firmed virus cas­es among Lock­heed and non-Lock­heed employ­ees. Since the plant has remained open dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, the com­pa­ny has respond­ed to the out­break by iden­ti­fy­ing and inform­ing work­ers who have been in prox­im­i­ty with an infect­ed employ­ee and ask­ing them to stay home, accord­ing to a Lock­heed spokesman. 

But Esco­bar and one plant work­er said there are gaps in that response. For exam­ple, Esco­bar says there were instances in which a work­er was sent home while their spouse, also a com­pa­ny employ­ee, was not, despite the pre­sum­ably close con­tact the pair has in a shared liv­ing space. One Fort Worth work­er also said that while the com­pa­ny will remove an employ­ee who works with­in six feet of some­one who tests pos­i­tive, there are cas­es of peo­ple who work at greater dis­tances — the employ­ee gave the exam­ple of work­ers on either side of a jet’s wings — who still share items dur­ing their shift.

Even though we were shar­ing the same work­sta­tion, the same com­put­er, the same tool­box, that doesn’t count,” the employ­ee says. 

In response to these con­cerns, Lock­heed Mar­tin told In These Times via email, Our Facil­i­ties teams have increased clean­ing sched­ules with­in all our build­ings and cam­pus­es across Lock­heed Mar­tin, with a high con­cen­tra­tion on com­mon areas like lob­bies, restrooms, break­rooms and ele­va­tors. Upon learn­ing of prob­a­ble expo­sure, a con­tract­ed pro­fes­sion­al clean­ing and restora­tion com­pa­ny san­i­tizes the employee’s work­space, sur­round­ing work­spaces, com­mon areas, and entrances and exits through­out the building.”

Anger at the expec­ta­tion employ­ees con­tin­ue work­ing led one to spit on the com­pa­ny’s gate in Fort Worth. Esco­bar says, He was just real­ly upset that the com­pa­ny was treat­ing him like that.” 

Lock­heed Mar­tin spokesman Ken­neth Ross told In These Times that the com­pa­ny’s secu­ri­ty team was aware of and inves­ti­gat­ing the report­ed spit­ting inci­dent. Obvi­ous­ly, that kind of behav­ior is not fit­ting with what we’re try­ing to do to cre­ate a Covid-19 safe envi­ron­ment,” he said

One Fort Worth employ­ee infect­ed with the virus filmed a video of him­self from a hos­pi­tal bed that went viral and was viewed by many of his cowork­ers. In shar­ing his sto­ry, he also exposed a gap in the com­pa­ny’s abil­i­ty to respond to the virus while main­tain­ing its floors open. 

In Antho­ny Mel­chor’s video, which has been viewed more than 16,000 times, he is inter­rupt­ed by coughs and wheezy breaths. I’m cool on my stool, you know me,” he says, warn­ing his fel­low work­ers that this Covid ain’t no bull­shit, man.” He calls on them to san­i­tize their work areas and not go to work if they feel unsafe.

Dur­ing a week­end in ear­ly April, Mel­chor, who sus­pects he was exposed to the virus at work, began to have severe migraines. He woke up the next day in a pool of sweat. His doc­tor ordered a Covid-19 test, but his first result was a false neg­a­tive, which Mel­chor believes hap­pened because his nasal swab was too shal­low. After sev­er­al days passed and his con­di­tion wors­ened, his wife insist­ed he receive med­ical atten­tion. A sec­ond coro­n­avirus test then came back pos­i­tive, he said.

Mel­chor says his delay in inform­ing Lock­heed that he was pos­i­tive for the virus also meant his cowork­ers were delayed in being removed from the line. Asked whether work­ers are removed from the plant when an employ­ee shows symp­toms of the virus or only after one has test­ed pos­i­tive, a Lock­heed spokesman wrote that the com­pa­ny identif[ies] and inform[s] any employ­ees who inter­act­ed with indi­vid­u­als exposed to or diag­nosed with Covid-19 while main­tain­ing confidentiality.”

At a Lock­heed Mar­tin site in Greenville, S.C., where the com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly pro­duc­ing F‑16s for Bahrain — the com­pa­ny appears to have only for­eign clients for the fight­er jet — one employ­ee expressed con­cern over how close work­ers get to one anoth­er when they often work in pairs on either side of a jet. The work­er also says it is the nature of our busi­ness” to have employ­ees who fre­quent­ly trav­el, includ­ing out of the coun­try, lead­ing the work­er to fear what they may bring back to the work­place when they return.

From a finan­cial stand­point I know it’s not ben­e­fi­cial for us to be at home,” the Greenville work­er says, but the safe­ty of employ­ees to me should be most important.” 

Lock­heed’s fight­er jets are among many defense prod­ucts that U.S. com­pa­nies export. 

In addi­tion to Lock­heed Mar­tin, In These Times sub­mit­ted ques­tions to three oth­er defense firms about ongo­ing exports dur­ing Covid-19. Northrop Grum­man announced in its April 29 earn­ings call that the com­pa­ny had deliv­ered two Glob­al Hawk sur­veil­lance drones to South Korea that month. Asked about the pre­cau­tions the com­pa­ny took for the safe­ty of work­ers han­dling the drones in the final weeks lead­ing up to the April deliv­ery, a spokesper­son wrote that the com­pa­ny is tak­ing extra­or­di­nary mea­sures to main­tain safe work­ing con­di­tions.” The U.S. ambas­sador in Seoul tweet­ed a pic­ture of the sleek gray drone embla­zoned with Kore­an let­ters in an April 19 mes­sage con­grat­u­lat­ing those involved in its delivery. 

Anoth­er con­trac­tor, Wichi­ta-based Tex­tron Avi­a­tion, told In These Times that, dur­ing Covid-19, the com­pa­ny will con­tin­ue to sup­port our cus­tomers accord­ing to our fund­ed con­tract require­ments, which includes for­eign customers.”

Jeff Abram­son, a senior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Arms Con­trol Asso­ci­a­tion, says the pan­dem­ic does not appear to have caused any devi­a­tion” from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s pol­i­cy of pro­mot­ing for­eign arms sales. He notes that the State Depart­ment approved numer­ous poten­tial sales, includ­ing ones to con­tro­ver­sial clients like the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and the Philip­pines, in the midst of the glob­al pandemic. 

It cer­tain­ly seems that this admin­is­tra­tion is try­ing to get a mes­sage to indus­try that you are impor­tant. There will be work for you,” Abram­son says.

Despite the essen­tial des­ig­na­tion, some Boe­ing defense-indus­tri­al sites buck­led under pres­sure as the virus spread and closed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. A day after the death of an employ­ee infect­ed with the virus in Wash­ing­ton State, Boe­ing announced it would shut­ter its Puget Sound site, where some 70,000 peo­ple work on both com­mer­cial and defense air­craft. Boe­ing also shut down a Penn­syl­va­nia site that pro­duces mil­i­tary air­craft for two weeks, say­ing the step was a nec­es­sary one for the health and safe­ty of our employ­ees and their communities.”

When Boe­ing par­tial­ly reopened Puget Sound after about three weeks, the first pro­duc­tion it resumed was on defense prod­ucts. Asked if work was under­way on P‑6 patrol air­craft for for­eign clients such as South Korea and New Zealand, a com­pa­ny spokesper­son respond­ed, We are eval­u­at­ing cus­tomer deliv­ery sched­ules and work­ing to min­i­mize impacts to our inter­na­tion­al customers.”

Unlike the Unit­ed States, some coun­tries have allowed defense pro­duc­tion to shut down. Mex­i­co did not declare its defense indus­try essen­tial, prompt­ing a rebuke from the Pen­tagon’s Ellen Lord, who wrote to the Mex­i­can for­eign min­istry regard­ing inter­rup­tions to sup­ply chains. Lord lat­er said she had seen a pos­i­tive response” from Mex­i­co on resolv­ing the issue. F‑35 facil­i­ties in both Japan and Italy shut down for sev­er­al days in the ear­ly weeks of the pandemic. 

Mel­chor, the Fort Worth employ­ee who is now recov­er­ing from Covid-19 at home, says he agrees with the defense-indus­tri­al base’s des­ig­na­tion as essen­tial, includ­ing when that involves com­mit­ments to cus­tomers amongst U.S. allies. I just also believe that our cus­tomers would have under­stood if there was a two-week delay or even a month delay because of this virus,” he says. 

He believes lead­er­ship is need­ed to address the issue in a uni­fied way and says debate about the cri­sis amongst work­ers, whom he called on in his video to pull togeth­er,” has become fractious. 

What I found inter­est­ing is the very thing that we build [is] to serve and pro­tect, for­eign and domes­tic, to pro­tect us from any type of evil or wrong­do­ing,” Mel­chor says. At what point does our com­pa­ny pro­tect us?”

An orig­i­nal ver­sion of this sto­ry said that U.S. com­pa­nies make for­eign arms sales in the order of $180 bil­lion a year. While the U.S. State Depart­ment says that the U.S. gov­ern­ment man­ages the trans­fer of approx­i­mate­ly $43 bil­lion in defense equip­ment to allies each year and pro­vides reg­u­la­to­ry approvals for more than $136 bil­lion per year in defense sales abroad, oth­ers esti­mates of the vol­ume of U.S. arms sales abroad have dif­fered. A new report from the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy says that the Unit­ed States made at least $85.1 bil­lion in arms sales offers in 2019. The report’s authors call this fig­ure a floor, not a ceil­ing” and said the num­ber is almost assured­ly an under­count­ing” due to lack of trans­paren­cy in arms sales reporting.
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